By Mark Guarino
Sera Cahoone is the first person to tell you she is shy.
First she hid behind her drums. To curb her constantly fidgeting hands, something her teachers always complained to her about, she picked up drumsticks and convinced her mother it was a practical way to work out the persisting rhythms that filled her head. Her mother agreed and took out a loan to purchase a drum kit and soon her seventh grade daughter’s anxiety problems were, if not solved solved, at least temporarily swayed.
Then Sera began to hum. She heard songs but didn’t tell anyone about them. She borrowed her brother’s guitar and messed with it. The humming started quietly. “I didn’t want anyone to hear me. I couldn’t even believe I was singing,” she said.
From those humble beginnings followed a singer-songwriter who writes possibly the saddest country songs of her generation. On Only as the Day is Long (Sub Pop), Cahoone, 32, gives voice to a sweet desolation while languishing in a night sky of twinkling notes off a pedal steel guitar. The music has a hesitating beauty to it, the reflection of a singer who needed almost 20 years to feel it was okay to expose her vulnerabilities in front of strangers.
“The first few times I played I couldn’t open my eyes. I was terrified. I’d mumble. I didn’t want people to know what I was saying,” she said. “I’m a very private person.”
As a teenager growing up in Littleton, Co., a suburb of Denver, she did what most introverts do in a mountain state when they grow tired of skateboarding: she snowboarded. Soon she was obsessed with the sport and took a job working at a local surf and sport shop. Raised by a single mother, Cahoone needed outlets for her mounting anxiety. Her music and after school life hanging out with the extreme sports crowd may have painted a picture of typical Southwestern rebellion, but Cahoone was just developing interests that would soon lead her away from Colorado and into a musical life she never imagined.
From her adopted home Seattle, she looks back and misses the mountains. Yet she is aware Littleton is famous for something much less natural. Cahoone is a graduate of Columbine High School, the site of the worst school massacre in U.S. history, when 12 people were killed in 1999 by the hands of two teenage gunmen.
When it happened, Cahoone was just settling into her new life in Seattle. “I remember one day I turned on TV and I saw my principal. It was just a surreal, crazy thing. I felt horrified of course, but also the fact that I was so far away and there’s my whole hometown on TV just made it worse,” she said.
Cahoone made it to Seattle in 1998 because of a job. The board shop in Littleton asked her to manage an expansion store in the Seattle and Cahoone saw it as a chance to make a fresh start, after spending a few years after high school playing in bands and trying to figure out the next step. She knew Seattle’s music scene was famous and there would be more chances for her to play in bands. But after two years of getting the store established by day and playing open mics by night, she knew one of the two had to go. She took a job at a coffee shop and gave up snowboarding for good.
The decision was fortuitous. Through a mutual friend she was enlisted to play drums for Carissa’s Wierd, the beloved Seattle art rock ensemble that, at the time, was one of the shining lights of the Pacific Northwest indie scene. “I was a pretty big fan,” Cahoone said. The stint would be brief considering that Carissa’s was winding down. Cahoone “may have been the 16th drummer,” according to co-founder Mat Brooke, who now fronts The Grand Archives. “But she was the definite standout,” he said. “She never gets herself locked into the typical rock drummer format. She’s really good with playing with brushes and she’s really versatile, especially with loud and soft music.”
Once Carissa’s expired, Cahoone grabbed her sticks to back up L.A.-based singer-songwriter Patrick Park — a former high school friend — but was lured back to Seattle by Brooke who enlisted her to play drums on Everything All the Time (Sup Pop), the now-legendary 2006 debut from Band of Horses, and its subsequent tour.
During this time Cahoone began to seriously invest in country music, something she hadn’t heard much of growing up considering her mother was strictly into folk and classic rock — Fairport Convention or Fleetwood Mac. “I was a late bloomer,” she said. Her investigations led her to standard bearers like Dolly Parton, Merle Haggard, Loretta Lynn, but even more than those personalities was a sound she found particularly larger-than-life: “I am completely in love with the pedal steel guitar.”
She started to write songs anchored by that sound; at the same time she started searching for someone who knew how to make it. A random Craigslist posting attracted Jay Kardong, a transplant from tiny Moscow, Idaho who moved to Seattle one year earlier than Cahoone and who already logged years playing in western swing bands and country cover bands both back home and around his adopted town. By the time he connected with Cahoone, Kardong was on a mission to finesse his pedal steel playing and play in a band that featured original songs.
Cahoone’s ad said “‘no assholes’,” remembered Kardong, 37. “I thought ‘this is the person I want to work with’.”
They played together for a year before Cahoone started adding players: multi-instrumentalist Jeff Fielder, bassist Eric Himes with Brooke on backing vocals and fiddler Sarah Standard from Carissa’s Wierd. The group would record Cahoone’s self-titled debut from 2006. “Finally, I just said, ‘let’s do this’,” she said. “I didn’t expect much.”
Sera Cahoone is an auspicious album, spooky and unvarnished. She sings quietly, her voice touched slightly with reverb, as if coming through the ceiling from one floor above. Despite the ensemble setting, the music languidly unfolds, Cahoone promising fidelity at one point, at another, sounding on the brink of unraveling. “Drinking, yeah, you know all the time/it’s so dark out I just want to stay inside/it’s half-past four and it’s black at night/fix me up because I’ve become undone,” she sings (“What a Shame”) — a song that sounds especially tailored for a Seattle winter.
“Her style of country is a sadder version, which goes over great here in Seattle because it matches the weather perfectly,” Brooke said.
To this day Cahoone feels a kinship with noir-ish country songwriter Kathleen Edwards who she saw perform before deciding to record her own music. “I was just blown away,” she said. “She really motivated me to get off my ass and record my songs.”
It took time before Cahoone felt comfortable performing live, mostly because she became self-conscious. Even though she describes herself as a “pretty happy-ish person,” she struggled with having the songs become misinterpreted, which made her sing at the level of a mumble. “You never know what they’re thinking. It was really hard at first,” she said. “I
“I know she get uncomfortable with the recognition she’s getting,” said Kardong. “In the studio she has a vision and she’s not afraid to tell us if we’re playing like shit or playing well. She has the song in her head and knows what she wants it to sound like. Her shyness came about because she wasn’t expecting what has happened and I think that translates onstage. She definitely comes across as a genuine person onstage with no phoniness at all to it.”
When Sub Pop said they wanted to put out a second album, Cahoone was ready because by this time, she had a seasoned band that knew each other and understood the nuances of her songs. Instead of using the opportunity to expand the sound palate in unexpected ways, Cahoone decided she wanted to keep the sparse sound of her debut at the core.
Yet the performances on Only as the Day is Long sound more confident, the songs becoming more tuneful. Even though the album will never make a sound system bleed, at its own quiet level the playing is intensively focused, accenting the slow burn underneath. Despite their pretty melodies — and none are as immediate — the songs ache with big yearnings. “The way you look at me/I thought I’d die alone,” she sings on “Shitty Hotel,” a song thick with atmosphere borrowed from all the dives she did overnights in while on the road with Carissa’s Wierd, the worst in El Paso, Tex., when she woke up to find a mouse nibbling the insides remains of her noodle cup. “I had a complete freak out,” she said.
The title song, stomping to a waltz beat while a banjo clucks underneath, bristles with tension. “All my insecurities are breaking me up inside/you light another cigarette/my eyes are on fire,” she sings. On “Baker Lake,” a song dating back to before her first album and based on her summer experiences in rural Wisconsin, the music bends slightly to reveal uncomfortable truths: “I hold you in bed/but you shrug away instead/oh, I don’t know why.”
The personal destruction in these songs is never colored in broad strokes; instead it simmers at a consistent rate until you realize flames are shooting everywhere. The distinction — refusing to declare intentions before it’s too late — is what makes her music slip betweens the margins of country music and indie rock, a beguiling area where not many songwriters can comfortably stake their ground.
“It took me a really long time to get there,” she said. “When I recorded that first record the thought of writing another record was that it would never happen. It’s a pretty long process. Different songs come out different ways. Some come out really fast depending if I’m in a certain mood or if something’s bothering me. I definitely go into a sad place. I just like writing darker stuff.”
Kardong said the nuances inside Cahoone’s songwriting come from her beginnings as a drummer. “When I first started playing with her, she had such a great and detailed idea of what she wanted, I didn’t know if that was her way or if she was really studied. I think it translated from when she was a drummer and her knowing when to bring the volume up and where to put the beat in.”
With two albums behind them, her band is now well versed in those intimate gestures, so much so that the songs translate seamlessly when they perform them live. Despite keeping her steady work at the coffee house and tending her to roommate, a toy poodle, Cahoone hopes a new booking agent will keep her touring for quite some time, a wish that Brooke has too as he has invited her band to open for The Grand Archives in June.
In Seattle, she finds herself thinking about Littleton when her former life bouncing down mountains on a snowboard.
“I miss the weather a lot. I miss the sun. The hardest thing here is it gets really hard in the winter,” she said. “Dark all the time.”